FOREWORD TO THE BOOK I’VE YET TO WRITEBrowsing through my file of writing exercises, I came upon this piece written a few years ago. I’ve yet to write the book – but when I do, this will be the starting point.
I have been travelling the world for nearly 20 years, meeting thousands of people in over fifty countries. I have seen wonderful sights and truly dreadful ones. I have had experiences I will always treasure and others I would willingly forget – if only the nightmares would go away. I have met friendly, welcoming people and ones who were much less so. I have learnt that generosity is often inversely proportional to wealth and that to admire something is frequently to be offered it as a present.
Many of the trips were to Russia and the Former Soviet Union. I first went there in 1993, just after the collapse, when communism was in tatters and people starting to learn a new way of life. I have visited many parts of the region, including Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Kazakhstan and the evocatively named Kabardino Balkaryia, plus more towns in Russia than most of its citizens, with their history of travel restrictions, would ever dream of seeing. This book tells the story of those years.
It does not look at the wider picture, the political changes or economic development. These will be charted in documentaries and history books for many years to come. It does not make judgements about the events of the day, although inevitably, it will be coloured by the perceptions of someone growing up in a capitalist country, believing Russia a world superpower, not to mention ‘the enemy’.
It tells the story of the people themselves, through the fresh eyes of a visitor. It deals with details so commonplace, they are only seen by outsiders; the minutiae of the day to day, the mundane. I had thought of entitling it (with apologies to Bill Bryson) ‘Notes from a Large Country’.
Some of the original writing for this text was done in the form of a diary. However, rereading it in the cold light of day, I acknowledged that the level of detail with which I record meals, business meetings and other boring aspects is probably not appropriate for general readership, unless there is a gap on the shelf marked Cures for Insomnia.
I therefore decided to focus on the key points that tell a story – or a series of short stories. There are no real central characters– just an array of people who flit in and out. Sometimes they make repeat appearances; sometimes it is a one-off performance, but each one is memorable to me – and hopefully interesting to others.
For many years, a key recipient of my stories was my mother. I was on a mission to persuade her my travels were exciting experiences, which I was lucky to have, rather than a series of dreadful, compulsory events that should be avoided if possible. Every time I phoned to tell her about a new contract I had won, a new experience I was about to enjoy, her standard response was ‘Oh dear’. Once, when I was working in North Carolina and someone was murdered in New York’s Central Park, she woke my father in the middle of the night, worrying whether it might be me, even though I was hundreds of miles away. The first time I visited Nigeria, I didn’t tell her until I came home again.
Despite her maternal concerns, she was always eager to hear my stories once she knew the dangers were past. Firstly, I would send her postcards or the occasional letter; then I would phone or visit her on my return to share my adventures. When the internet became a reality rather than the stuff of science fiction, we bought her an email telephone and, after that we could be in daily contact.
My youngest sister had given us all email nicknames: I was ‘IJSCOI’ (the highly ironic International Jet-Setting Captain of Industry) and my mom, after my dad’s death and promotion to ‘Heavenly Dude’, became ‘The Big Chief’. For several years, I would use internet cafes and clients’ offices to prepare these ‘Emails to the Big Chief’. Even after her death, I often described my travels to myself and other people in the same format and so it feels appropriate to use it in this book.
These are the memories that spring to mind when I think about that part of the world. Haphazard, not sequential; collated by somewat tenuous threads on occasion. I hope they bring a smile to your faces but also challenge some assumptions.